Exploring the Vast Expanse of Mongolia: Our Self-Driving Guide To Mongolia
Mongolia, with its vast landscapes and untamed beauty, holds an allure for travellers seeking adventure. While the idea of a self-driving holiday experience may seem appealing if you’re craving independence and a sense of freedom, the reality of navigating Mongolia’s rugged terrain brings forth challenges. Also, while the prospect of hitting the open road and exploring Mongolia at your own pace on a self-drive tour may be enticing, it’s crucial to recognise that uninformed exploration could unintentionally impact local communities and the environment negatively. With this in mind, we have put together our self-driving guide to Mongolia. We hope it helps you to navigate Mongolia responsibly and respectfully but please do your own detailed research – it requires a lot of preparation to drive yourself.
Consider Your Levels Of Experience
- Self-driving in Mongolia offers the freedom and flexibility to explore areas at your own pace but consider your level of experience – Mongolia’s roads differ greatly from those in Western Europe or Northern America – and have a realistic picture of just how big Mongolia is.
- A network of national roads branches out from the capital city, connecting Ulaanbaatar to each provincial capital. State roads also provide access to certain border crossings and other larger towns. A majority of these state roads are paved or asphalt. However, the condition of these state roads can present its own set of challenges. Often utilised by heavy mining trucks and subject to inadequate maintenance, these routes endure the brunt of both heavy traffic and harsh weather conditions.
- For those who want to focus on predominantly off-road, consider your levels of experience. The diversity of Mongolia’s landscapes means you will face a mix of terrain including sand, rocks, boulders, tree roots, and mud. Also, expect endless kilometres of corrugated surfaces.
- Driving is easier in the shoulder months of May–June and September but, you should be prepared for heavy storms throughout spring, summer, and autumn which result in swollen rivers, or getting bogged down in mud.
- For those considering winter, although the ground freezes, also consider the weather conditions and that blizzard conditions or fast-moving winter storms can impact driving conditions. Also, snow and ice often set high demands even on experienced off-road drivers.
- Always remember that although a route was navigable the day before does not mean that it is today.
Planning Your Route | Navigation
- Do not overestimate your driving route. When measuring driving distances and times, ALWAYS factor in additional time – although a road may be highlighted as being paved or asphalt, a lack of maintenance results in hours of pot-holed hell. The typical maximum speed limit is 60 km/h in cities and towns, and 80 km/h on state roads. But, realistically, expect to travel at 45 k/ph in northern Mongolia and 55 k/ph in the Gobi but this does not take into consideration weather that might impact the road conditions.
- Make sure to pack camping equipment although nearly all towns have accommodation such as guesthouses or hotels that remain open all year. They can get booked up in advance during peak season or festivals.
- As well as carrying a mobile phone, it pays to travel with a GPS although do not rely solely on a GPS. Digital map options include:
- But, always carry a backup physical paper map or a pre-downloaded offline map in case your technology runs out of battery or just lets you down. A compass can also come in useful. Also, be aware that a majority of dirt roads in Mongolia have no signs and often split into many smaller tracks which often don’t show up on the online maps.
- Some provincial or regional paved roads have tolls.
- Mongolian drivers rely on their own form of GPS but this means ‘Ger Positioning System’ whereby they check routes and directions with local families. However, remember that vast expanses of the land are empty. Also, your language skills or your chosen translation app may not be up to scratch when it comes to communicating with families about directions. Also, families have expert knowledge of the immediate area where they herd their livestock but may not know about regions further away.
- Google Translate can help or other apps such as iTranslate. Even better, learn you before you go by using a language programme such as Glossika or Memrise.
- YouTube is also a great resource including the ‘Mongolian Language’ channel.
- Remember, even if you feel you have mastered the Mongolian language, remain patient and respectful if you want people to help you.
- Don’t deplete your fuel reserves – fuel up often, even if your tank is half-full as electricity cuts do occur and pumps won’t work. That’s also why we suggest always carrying money with you as although most gas/petrol stations accept cards, they require electricity to do so.
- Also, in rural areas not all gas stations are 24 hours and sometimes they run out of fuel if a delivery is delayed.
- Note also that fuel is imported from Russia, China, and South Korea as well as other countries. Because of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia is exporting less diesel to Mongolia and the government in Mongolia has mandated minimum reserves for national security reasons so stockpiles don’t get depleted.
- Also, fuel in remote gas stations can be a bit older so consider using an additive to protect the engine against corrosion or similar.
Choosing Your Vehicle
- Although Mongolian families drive 2WD Priuses just about everywhere, foul weather, deep snow, or muddy roads will have you craving more traction so consider renting a 4×4 as having the differential lock of a 4×4 will make your journey a whole heap easier.
- Although there are now multiple vehicle hire companies in Mongolia, not all have the infrastructure in place to support you during your trip such as if your vehicle breaks down. Also, not all allow for one-way rentals or to return the vehicle at a network of locations rather than just Ulaanbaatar.
- Individual guides and companies also frequently offer vehicles for hire either with or without a driver through Facebook and travel websites. However, note that the sector is unregulated so choose wisely.
- Although not always clear (!), vehicles drive on the right side of the road. But, most of the cars in Mongolia are imported from Japan with steering on the right side.
- Other points to consider are:
- Does the company have insurance?
- Whether your rental has a diesel or petrol engine.
- The ground clearance of the vehicle (depending on your final route)
- Fuel consumption.
- The age of the vehicle.
- The maintenance history of the vehicle.
- The number of kilometres already clocked.
- Are there restrictions on the route or the length of each driving day? Is there unlimited mileage?
- Is there a vehicle replacement service in case of mechanical issues?
- It would be best if you were expedition-equipped. Although the equipment you decide to take will depend on whether you are travelling solo or with other vehicles consider packing the following:
- Tow rope | Winch
- Sand Anchor
- Mud and sand mats
- Tree saver strap (don’t tie the tow rope directly to a tree to avoid damaging it)
- Car jack
- Compressor or pump
- Tyre repair kit
- Pressure gauge for the tyres
- Jump cables
- Snow chains, if snow and ice may be en route
- Spare tyres
- Comprehensive tool kit
In addition, you should carry the following:
- Necessary camping equipment including a water filter.
- Enough packed (i.e. non-perishable) food
- Water (for emergencies)
- First aid kit
- Motor oil
- Windscreen Cleaner
- Mobile phone and charging adapter, additional power bank (a solar charger makes sense)
- Most important of all: travel with common sense, patience, and a positive ‘can do’ mindset with a smile on your face.
- Have a backup plan for breakdowns. How will you cope? Remember that Mongolia is one of the largest countries in the world with one of the smallest population densities. That means a whole heap of space. Depending on your season of travel and final route, if you break down it might take 12-24 hours before someone passes by.
- Get to know and check your vehicle before you start driving such as learning the dimensions of the vehicle, finding the lowest point, and checking the tyre pressure, oil levels, and brakes. Before driving, secure your luggage.
- Read up on local regulations and laws. Although not always clear (!), vehicles drive on the right side of the road. But, most of the cars in Mongolia are imported from Japan with steering on the right side.
- Be sensible, know your limits and always wear a seatbelt – this isn’t just about your safety, local emergency organisations are already stretched thin.
- When driving, think about the terrain you are crossing or the weather conditions. As an example, if crossing water, get out to check the depth.
- We also recommend an up-to-date first aid course. Also, do not scrimp on insurance.
- Carry enough cash to last the whole trip.
- Phone coverage is surprisingly good in Mongolia, travel with a phone and local SIM card.
- Let someone know where you are going and when you are due to arrive.
- Remember you will need an International Driver’s Permit (1968) for Mongolia.
Consider Your Environmental Impact
- Mongolia’s breathtaking landscapes are home to delicate ecosystems that are essential to the country’s biodiversity. Make sure that you influence your environment as little as possible as the impact of soil erosion, vegetation destruction, and habitat disruption can be profound.
- Mongolia has virtually no public toilets. Human waste and how you do or don’t dispose of it significantly impacts Mongolia’s wilderness and has environmental impacts as well. All sanitary items and toilet paper should essentially be packed out but you can bury the paper – never burn it for the main risk of starting a grassland or forest fire.
- It breaks our heart to have to say this but don’t discard rubbish/garbage.
- Having a campfire is an elemental thing. For many, it is an integral part of camping but if you do choose to have a fire, do so responsibly and follow the leave-no-trace code.
- Make sure you clear the ground.
- Create a mound or a fire ring (or even better, use an existing fire ring).
- Forage for firewood without making an impact and keep in mind that high-use camping areas can quickly become barren. Gather dry kindling and wood from a wide area away from your campsite. Instead of cutting or breaking branches from living or dead trees, collect dead or fallen twigs that can broken by hand from the ground.
- Keep fires small.
- Burn the fire to ash, put it out completely, and, then scatter the cool ashes.
Respect Mongolia’s Herding Communities
- Herders are real people living real lives. They are under immense pressure, just like us, to make ends meet, handle family situations, and deal with their livestock and the daily stresses involved.
- Mongolian hospitality is renowned for its warmth, and while you’ll undoubtedly be welcomed graciously, this doesn’t necessarily extend to an invitation for an extended stay. It’s essential to be mindful not to overstay your welcome and respect the boundaries of your visit – a lack of awareness and understanding could lead to unintentional disrespect.
- You can find out more in our blog post – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/how-to-visit-a-mongolian-nomadic-family-respectfully/
Embrace The Real Mongolia (And Remember, You’re Not The First)
- Stereotypes about Mongolia often focus on the country’s nomadic culture, vast steppes, and historical association with Chinggis Khan However, it’s important to move beyond these stereotypes to gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of real life in Mongolia today. Ditch your ideas on what is or isn’t authentic and come open-minded. Break away from oversimplified stereotypes and embrace the multifaceted reality of this beautiful and diverse country – allow 21st-century Mongolia to surprise you.
- Mongolians have encountered many Westerners before – you are not the first. They are a modern people, open to the world, who have welcomed many international visitors and who confront many of the same challenges as we do. It’s important to recognize that Mongolians aren’t a tourist attraction and are not there solely for your entertainment.
While the idea of self-driving in Mongolia might seem tempting, it’s crucial to weigh the environmental and social consequences at the same time of considering the safety factors. Collaborating with local operators ensures a more culturally immersive experience for you and also ensures that local communities benefit from your visit. For a small fee, you can use the knowledge and experience of our brilliant team of Mongolian drivers to help plan your driving route. Or, why not combine your self-driving experience in Mongolia with the strength of our community partnerships? (Our homestay experiences webpage provides a very broad idea of what we can help to arrange.) These options ensure that the economic benefits of your self-driving tourism experience are distributed more equitably, directly benefiting the local communities through which you travel.
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes